Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Nephite governmental transition

I am very fascinated by and interested in Nephite history. Obviously I wish we had more information, What was on the large plates that Mormon abridged from? What information did he leave out? What was on the translated pages that Martin Harris lost? I expect it will take a while before I can get those answers (although Don Bradley provides some great insight in his book). So the only thing I can do except for learning directly from the Book of Mormon, is paying attention to details and reading between the lines. Doing so, I have been trying to better understand the Nephite government and the transition from kings to judges. Interestingly, this transition is a reversal of the Biblical transition from judges to kings.

The transition from kings to judges is also a monumental event in Nephite history. It is marked by a long speech by the king in the last chapter of Mosiah and the transition from the Book of Mosiah to the Book of Alma. It is also an event that happens in the middle of Nephite history. King Mosiah died and Alma became the first chief judge 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, according to Mosiah 29:46. Fast forward another 509 years and we are in 419 AD when Moroni was wandering around alone with the plates about to bury them in the ground.

This milestone of changing the governmental form was so monumental that they changed the time reckoning for the first time since Lehi left Jerusalem. The laws that king Mosiah established that the people were to be governed by under the rule of the judges, are referred to several times later in the Book of Mormon.

Reading between the lines, the transition may not have been without complications. A king is usually considered the highest authority in all affairs of the kingdom. He has his royal court so that he gets advise and help with all the affairs but he always has the final word. Nephite kings had at least the following responsibilities:

  • Secular affairs (law enforcement etc.)
  • Ecclesiastical affairs
  • Warfare
  • Record keeping
It is obvious that the first point should become the new responsibility of the judges. But what about the rest? I think this was not obvious and perhaps not sufficiently discussed or thought through before the transition was made. Here are some comments on how this was managed before and after the transition from kings to judges.

Secular affairs (government)

As mentioned, the Book of Mormon frequently refers back to the law that were prepared by king Mosiah for the reign of the judges. This does not mean that there were no laws before then. Jarom says about the Nephites:
They observed to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord. And they profaned not; neither did they blaspheme. And the laws of the land were exceedingly strict. (Jarom 1:5)

But they weren't referred to often. These rare occasion mentions it in conjunction with the law of Moses. I get a sense that the laws they lived by pretty much were based on the Torah ("law" or "instruction" in Hebrew) on the brass plates. In Israel, any righteous king at least would let the Torah comprise the governing principles of the land. I expect the Nephites to have followed that tradition. Practical matters that were not covered by the Torah may have simply been up to the king to decide. It makes sense that a change from king to judge would necessitate a more detailed law. 

37 And now it came to pass, after king Mosiah had sent these things forth among the people they were convinced of the truth of his words.

38 Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.

39 Therefore, it came to pass that they assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges, to judge them according to the law which had been given them; and they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them. (Mosiah 29)

Their "equal chance" was not based on the king's mood, righteousness or whim, but a detailed law that should apply to everybody. For instance, King Benjamin said to his people: "Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons" (Mosiah 2:13) whereas King Noah cast Abinadi in prison for his preaching. What crimes warranted a prison sentence were probably more up to the king to decide than determined by a detailed juridical system. This changed when Mosiah established laws that the people should be judged by under the new system and Alma became the first appointed chief judge.

Ecclesiastical affairs

Alma was the first chief judge and also the high priest of the church. So one would think that this responsibility automatically followed in a system with little separation between church and state. Think again. Alma was already the high priest before the reign of the judges. It just so happened that he also became the first chief judge. But this was quite independently from his position as high priest.

Before Alma-2's father, Alma-1, became the first high priest, there really was none. That is, there were priests who served in the temple and prophets, but no high priest over the church (who had a similar role as the president of the church today) because there was no church! At least, there is no mention of a church organization among the Nephites before Alma-1 established one. This was another milestone for the Nephites that is referred back to many times later in the Book of Mormon.

Before that time, the king was the primary ecclesiastical leader as long as he was righteous. When he wasn't, prophets like Abinadi came with a warning. But unfortunately because of the lost pages, we know very few Nephite kings. In the Words of Mormon 1:17-18 we read that King Benjamin, "with the assistance from the holy prophets", preached the word of God to the people. The kings were responsible for ecclesiastical affairs even though there was no church organization as such. But they were helped by prophets and priests. King Noah's priests followed this tradition, even though they were wicked. But we read that his father had priests too, as probably all Nephite kings did.

Not long after the reign of the judges started, Alma gave up the judgment seat to focus on his role as high priest. Those two tasks were simply too much. In the rest of the Book of Mormon the two roles are usually held by two different people. Why would it be too much when the kings managed just fine, and more? Probably because the kings had their court and a larger network around them to assist. The chief judge was perhaps more left to himself. A bit speculative but that is what I think.


Again back to King Benjamin (we don't have a lot of Nephite kings to choose from), we read:
And it came to pass also that the armies of the Lamanites came down out of the land of Nephi, to battle against his people. But behold, king Benjamin gathered together his armies, and he did stand against them; and he did fight with the strength of his own arm, with the sword of Laban. (Words of Mormon 1:13)

He who had the sword of Laban was the leader of the army, no doubt. This is also made clear by "gathered together his armies". The question is who becomes the leader of the army when there are no more kings. Reading between the lines, I think this was not really thought through. It is obvious that the king should be leading the army but perhaps not so obvious that the chief judge should have that role. This happened nonetheless but it didn't last for very long. In Alma 2, he had only been chief judge for a little more than four years

Now Alma, being the chief judge and the governor of the people of Nephi, therefore he went up with his people, yea, with his captains, and chief captains, yea, at the head of his armies, against the Amlicites to battle.

He is the chief captain of the army at this point. Only six years later

Therefore, he that had been appointed chief captain over the armies of the Nephites, (and his name was Zoram, and he had two sons, Lehi and Aha)—now Zoram and his two sons, knowing that Alma was high priest over the church, and having heard that he had the spirit of prophecy, therefore they went unto him and desired of him to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites. (Alma 16:5)

In the meantime, Alma has also given up the judgment seat and is focusing on his role as high priest. He is also not the chief captain of the army and more. Is that because he gave up the judgment seat? No. Because if the role as chief captain followed the role as chief judge, Nephihah, the chief judge should also have been captain of the army. Instead it is a man named Zoram. In this case he approaches the high priest and former chief captain, Alma, to see if he can inquire of the Lord.

I can easily imagine some events here that have not been carried over into Mormon's abridgment. Alma is chief captain of the army just because the kings used to be and he is the closest equivalent of former kings in the new system. But after a while he (or others) ask. "Who said the chief judge should lead the army anyway? We haven't really thought this through, have we?" Or the question comes up when Alma leaves the judgment seat to Nephihah. "OK, I'll be the chief judge but I'm not going to lead the army. I'm not a warrior, I'm terrible with the sword". From this time on, the chief captain (of which captain Moroni is the most famous) is never the same person as the chief judge. 

Record keeping 

The large plates of Nephi went from the hands of one king to the next, starting with Nephi himself who made the plates. This was not a minor task. At least the righteous kings took it very seriously and handing the plates and other sacred relics to the next generation was like a ceremonial event. Most of Mosiah 1 is describing this as King Benjamin hands them over to his son, Mosiah. So what happened at the transition to the reign of the judges? Alma, the first chief judge, was handed the records from Mosiah as we can read in Mosiah 28:20. The question is if Alma was expected to keep the records because he was the chief judge or because he was the high priest? It turns out that it probably was because of his role as chief judge.

37 And it came to pass that in the same year that the people of Nephi had peace restored unto them, that Nephihah, the second chief judge, died, having filled the judgment-seat with perfect uprightness before God.

38 Nevertheless, he had refused Alma to take possession of those records and those things which were esteemed by Alma and his fathers to be most sacred; therefore Alma had conferred them upon his son, Helaman. (Alma 50)

Alma first offered the records to Nephihah, the chief judge, rather than his son Helaman, who was high priest over the church. It shows an expectation that the records were the responsibility of the chief judge. But after Helaman took them, this changed, and the Nephite records stayed in that family of prophets/high priests rather than the judges.

Eventually, the four roles of the king became distinct roles for three different people after the reign of the judges. The high priestly office and responsibility for record keeping was held by the same person.  For instance, later in Alma, Pahoran was the chief judge, Moroni was the chief captain of the army and Helaman was the high priest and record keeper.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Endowment Narratives in the Book of Mormon, Part 3a -- Finding Meaning in the Symbols

The more I study the scriptures and ponder their meaning, the more I realize how much we underappreciate the significance of the archetypal story of Adam and Eve as presented in the books of Genesis, Moses, and Abraham. I believe the ancient prophets saw themselves as Adam and created intentional parallels in their accounts.

As we continue this series on "endowment patterns" in the Book of Mormon, I hope I'll be able to draw out meaning from our list of twelve recurring details that connect back to Adam and Eve.

For reference, here is the list of details:

  1. Commanded/warned (often in a dream or vision) to depart
  2. The group they leave are involved in secret combinations or intend to kill them.
  3. They seek to bring all who will hearken/listen
  4. The new covenant people passes through a wilderness on their journey
  5. "Many days"
  6. Tents (a symbol of the presence of the Lord)
  7. A list of animals (sometimes "of every kind")
  8. They inherit a land
  9. New names are given (see Genesis 2:20)
  10. They obey the commandments of the Lord
  11. Abundance/Prosper
  12. They are usually led by a righteous patriarch/king/royal family member

I'm planning to take my time going through each of these symbols, so this part will be broken up into multiple sections.

Commanded/warned (often in a dream or vision) to depart

We read about a "deep sleep" that God caused to come upon Adam (see Moses 3:21 and Abraham 5:15). Waking up from that deep sleep is a powerful covenant symbol. Read the following verses from the Book of Mormon with this context in mind (for the sake of not making this post too long, I am only including the key phrases from these passages, but I encourage you to read the full context of each of the following passages to really get the message). I've highlighted references to "awake" in yellow, descriptions of what we are to awake from in aqua, and I've put in bold italics other key terms and phrases.

13 O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.

14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent... (2 Nephi 1)


28 Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. (2 Nephi 4)


Awake, awake! Put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake as in the ancient days. (2 Nephi 8 quoting Isaiah 51; see also verses 17 & 24, 3 Nephi 20:36, and Moroni 10:31)


11 O my brethren, hearken unto my wordsarouse the faculties of your souls; shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death; and loose yourselves from the pains of hell that ye may not become angels to the devil, to be cast into that lake of fire and brimstone which is the second death. (Jacob 3)


40 ... I pray that ye should awake to a remembrance of the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression. (Mosiah 2)


And the things which I shall tell you are made known unto me by an angel from God. And he said unto me: Awake; and I awoke, and behold he stood before me.

And he said unto me: Awake, and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy. (Mosiah 3)


Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them. (Alma 5)


27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words ... (Alma 32)

I love this "awake from a deep sleep" symbolism. Jeff Lindsay has explored the connection between dust and chains in a series of Interpreter articles which center on the hypothesis that the Book of Moses contains source text known to authors of the Book of Mormon (part 1 here). If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read more about it. It isn't hard to find this same symbolism in our modern temple worship. The endowment is a literal gift from God, and one of the first steps in truly appreciating how sacred and important this gift is involves a spiritual awakening.

The group they leave are involved in secret combinations or intend to kill them.

My appreciation for this symbol increased as I came to understand the connection between secret combinations and the story of Cain. (See here for a detailed explanation.) Once I understood that secret combinations are Satan's mimic of the sacred covenant between God and Adam, a whole lot of seemingly random details suddenly fell into a beautiful pattern.

God's everlasting covenant offers us power and eternal "gain" as long as we are willing to follow God's way and rely upon Jesus Christ as our source of strength.  Satan offers a counterfeit to this, but it's a trap which leads to bondage and spiritual death.

Moroni, writing directly to his latter-day Gentile readers, offer us this warning, where he gives us explicit warnings about leaving these evil ways behind. I'll put in bold the descriptions of the secret combinations, and also highlight one use of "awake" as well in this passage.  References to Cain will be in orange (with verses inserted for your convenience):

23 Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above youwhich are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be.

24 Wherefore, the Lord commandeth you, when ye shall see these things come among you that ye shall awake to a sense of your awful situation, because of this secret combination which shall be among you; or wo be unto it, because of the blood of them who have been slain; for they cry from the dust for vengeance upon it (Genesis 4:10), and also upon those who built it up.

25 For it cometh to pass that whoso buildeth it up seeketh to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries; and it bringeth to pass the destruction of all people, for it is built up by the devil, who is the father of all lies; even that same liar who beguiled our first parents, yea, even that same liar who hath caused man to commit murder from the beginning; who hath hardened the hearts of men that they have murdered the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out from the beginning.

26 Wherefore, I, Moroni, am commanded to write these things that evil may be done away, and that the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men, but that they may be persuaded to do good continually, that they may come unto the fountain of all righteousness and be saved. (Ether 8)

One major early hurdle we must clear as we seek to fully accept the endowment God desires to give us is to leave Satan and his evil, destructive ways behind.  We must cast him out the same way Jesus cast out unclean spirits. This is accomplished by seeing Satan's tactics for what they are and replacing his ways with God's ways (the Gospel of Jesus Christ).

In the stories I outlined in parts 1 and 2 of this series, the new covenant people must leave behind a fallen situation in which some evil people seek their death (or captivity). There is deep symbolic power in striving to identify and leave behind the elements of our current situation which keeps us bound down and subjected to Satan's power.  

They seek to bring all who will hearken/listen

The Book of Moses makes it clear that Adam and Eve taught what they had learned from God to their children.

12 And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters. (Moses 5)

And Adam hearkened unto the voice of God, and called upon his sons to repent. (Moses 6) 

This was done in order to keep a commandment from God:

58 And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning, being declared by holy angels sent forth from the presence of God, and by his own voice, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost.

59 And thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance, and the Gospel preached, and a decree sent forth, that it should be in the world, until the end thereof; and thus it was. Amen. (Moses 5)

As I noted in the examples in parts 1 and 2, bringing everyone who will "hearken" is an important component of the formation of a new covenant people.

That's it for this post.  In the next post (part 3b), we'll continue to find connections between the details in the endowment pattern and the story of Adam and Eve.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Melchizedek -- Part 4 (Bread and wine)

I decided to study more about the somewhat mysterious figure, Melchizedek, to see what I could learn. In part 1 and part 2, we looked at the covenant explained in JST of Genesis 14 when Melchizedek met Abraham. In part 3 we saw how the title, prince of peace, connects to this covenant and the priesthood administering it. There is another post about "the covenant meal" that provides background and context for this post, where we will have a closer look at the meal and blessing that we read about as Melchizedek and Abraham meet.

As mentioned in the post about the covenant meal, there is another high priest, Alma, who

  • Eats together with Amulek
  • Blesses Amulek and his family
  • Alma's blessing becomes the Lord's blessing upon Amulek
In Genesis 14, we see the same pattern. Verse 18 is from the original Genesis before the JST kicks in at verse 19 and adds a great deal. 
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wineand he was the priest of the most high God...
25 And Melchizedek lifted up his voice and blessed Abram...

37 And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God...

40 And it came to pass, that God blessed Abram, and gave unto him riches, and honor, and lands for an everlasting possession; according to the covenant which he had made, and according to the blessing wherewith Melchizedek had blessed him. 

There is a lot between verses 25 and 37 that we have already discussed in this series. We see that these two verses have a common phrase creating a repetitive resumption. All the discussion of the covenant, peace and righteousness is therefore sandwiched between the mentions of Melchizedek blessing Abraham. I therefore think that Melchizedek played a central role in the Abrahamic covenant, perhaps formalizing the promises that God already had given him by a priesthood ordinance. Just like Alma, Melchizedek can pronounce a blessing in the name of the Lord, and representing him as high priest, Melchizedek's blessing becomes God's blessing.

We also see another example of a covenant meal as Melchizedek brings bread and wine. Paul spends much of his letter to the Hebrews to make a case for Jesus Christ as the great high priest after the order of Melchizedek. The bread and wine that Melchizedek offers Abraham surely reminds us of the bread and wine that Jesus Christ offered to his disciples who were the seed of Abraham. 

In his commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, Jewish thinker Philo points out that Melchizedek brought bread and wine instead of the expected hospitality gift of bread and water (see e.g. Deuteronomy 23:4). Based on that, Bible scholar Margaret Barker interprets Jesus' first miracle where he turned water into wine as a Melchizedek sign. This is speculative of course but an intriguing thought. By turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana and giving his disciples bread and wine at the last supper, Jesus is confirming his identity as high priest after the order of Melchizedek. As John 2:11 states, Jesus "manifested forth his glory" with this miracle.

The main responsibility of the high priest was temple service. As Paul argues, Jesus went into the holy of holies sacrificing himself (instead of an animal) of which the sacramental bread and wine were reminders. At the wedding feast in Cana, "there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews" (John 2:6). Jews had cleansing rituals where they washed their hands before meals. That is a funny thing to write since most of us also wash our hands before eating without considering it anything remotely close to a religious ritual. These same cleansing rituals where performed by the priests who entered into the temple. There were waterpots outside the temple and shewbread and wine (for libation) inside. But there is also the concept of a temple meal that Lord Wilmore wrote about and that is contextualized by the covenant meal post

This is another obscure source but the Testament of Levi (that is Levi, son of Jacob/Israel) tells about his vision where he finds himself in the temple visited by seven men in white raiment. He is clothed in sacred vestments, served bread and wine and promised to be a priest forever. So in a sense, the water belongs outside the temple and the wine inside. As I mentioned, this is speculative, but Jesus turning water into wine moves the wedding feast from outside the temple to inside the temple and Jesus thereby establishes his role as the high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

In any case, there is a relationship between Melchizedek, Abraham and Jesus Christ, as also the previous post demonstrated (linking "Prince of Peace" to all three). There is also a strong case to be made here for a covenant meal between Melchizedek and Abraham. This meal with associated covenants and blessings is a foreshadowing of the "meal", covenant and blessings between the priest after the order of Melchizedek and Abraham's seed. 

Today we drink water instead of wine for practical reasons at the sacrament as a reminder and renewal of our covenants. The sacrament is also administered by the Aaronic priesthood. But the Lord has promised that the hour cometh when he will drink the fruit of the vine with us once again. This is the "small meal" and "big meal" symbolism from the video in Lord Wilmore's post that I linked.

Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim...

10 And also with Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, your fathers, by whom the promises remain;

11 And also with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days;

12 And also with Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them;

13 Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth;

14 And also with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world. (D&C 27)

As both priests after the order of Melchizedek and Abraham's seed, we are fathers and sons, kings and princes and thereby the covenant is perpetuated throughout the generations. The covenant is renewed by a small meal at the sacrament table but will be realized in full in a grand meal in the future.

I set out to learn more about Melchizedek with this study and ended up learning little about the person and much about related doctrine and symbolism. That is fine as far as I'm concerned. With the limited information we have, Melchizedek will always remain a bit mysterious, but the priesthood that he held is among us today blessing millions of Abraham's seed. And the blessing by the priesthood holder becomes the blessing of God.

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